Political Slogans: How they influence elections

Political Slogans: How they influence elections

Read my lips, no new taxes; Change we can believe in - Just two of those political slogans we bought, and can't return.

A winning slogan from then-candidate Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential Campaign. (2008 Obama campaign poster)

WASHINGTON, September 21, 2015 – From the very beginning of the American Presidential election process, virtually all candidates have latched onto a slogan, an idea, that they believe will carry them to the White House. Some were winners and many were dismal losers. Here are some contemporary examples that have captivated the minds of the American voter, and some that have been lost to history:

  • Are you better off than you were four years ago? Ronald Reagan used these words to define a nation that was foundering under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Interest rates had reached a high of 15%, banks stopped lending money, and the voters were stuck in a malaise of unattainable mortgages and increasing debt.

    Iran held Americans hostage under the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and it seemed as if there was no way out of our national malaise. Reagan represented a way out and a change for the better. When the rescue of the Iranian hostages ended in disaster, Carter’s defeat was a certainty.

  • It’s the economy, stupid. Bill Clinton offered a vision for the future over incumbent George H.W. Bush and his mystical “thousand points of light” and “new world order”, which only served to confuse the electorate. By not connecting these catch words to a better America under the second term of Bush I, the voters were placed in the position of trying a young and vibrant administration under Clinton against a stale lame duck under Bush.

    It didn’t help the decision-making process when the Bush administration launched a war in Iraq that few Americans felt inspired to fight. The incumbent foundered under a lack of clarity and direction, and Clinton chose to focus on domestic issues (unemployment) instead of world affairs that failed to capture the attention of Americans.

  • Change we can believe in. From the start of the campaign of 2008, Barack Obama emerged as the candidate who would need to work hard to lose the election. Bush II was leaving office with the nation mired deeply in debt and fighting two wars in parts of the world that seemed to lack national purpose.

    Worse, the Republican candidates that year, John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin, seemed ready to reinforce Bush’s agenda. The resounding question of whether we wanted a hockey Mom/one term governor from Alaska to back up a veteran long-term Senator, one heartbeat from the presidency, weighed heavily in the decision-making of the voters.

In retrospect, it doesn’t matter whether the slogans used by presidential candidates are the foundation of a new presidency, or whether they are remembered long beyond Inauguration Day. Slogans are used as the hook to get them where they’re going, and considerable polling of prospective voters is performed to determine what keywords capture attention.

There are several general guidelines that prove helpful in this process. The slogan’s message must be short enough to fit on a sign in a front yard. It must be clear. It must resonate on a subject important to the voter. And finally, it must represent a message of change.

A candidate’s or campaign’s failure to adhere to these guidelines can end in a failure to communicate, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • AuH2O. Barry Goldwater used the chemical symbols of his last name as a slogan for his campaign against Lyndon Johnson. It didn’t help matters that many American voters may have flunked chemistry in high school, and had no idea what the slogan meant.

    When Johnson broadcast a political ad showing a nuclear explosion without any narration, Goldwater’s campaign went down in flames. Chemistry teachers all over the country mourned his monumental defeat. The electorate may have assumed that the chemical formula for his last name was a formula for the atomic bomb.

  • Believe in America. In Mitt Romney’s campaign against an incumbent Barack Obama, his strengths as a candidate were lost in the message. Of course Americans believe in America. Romney’s contributions as a successful businessman and leader, someone who could lead the nation out from under the second great recession in our history, were not promoted by that message.

    A slogan is meant to be inspirational, and Romney succumbed to the political advisors from the Republican party and his campaign.

The election of 2016 will be a firestorm of political slogans. Most will be lost to history. Here are two current slogans to consider:

  • Make America Great Again. Donald Trump has already taken the lead among pollsters and the host of trailing Republican candidates by coining this slogan, one that recalls the Age of Reagan. No doubt, strategists in competing campaigns are scurrying to one-up The Donald by coining their own keywords to define the direction of their candidacies.
  • It’s Your Time. Hillary Clinton has launched this new slogan, one that could lead to ultimate disaster. She may want to re-think that idea, as the same words have been used by an online dating site for singles over 50. The slogan fails to convey a message, but it is short and will fit on a campaign sign.

    However, it is not a message that would inspire even the least recalcitrant Democrat to go out in the rain on Election Day to cast a vote in her favor.

Whatever the fate of these two slogans, the election of 2016 is still evolving, sometimes in unexpected ways. That said, political slogans are a crucial factor in influencing votes. The message to be conveyed needs to one of hope for the future and confidence that the next president will lead our nation from the problem to the solution. The front-runners can inspire hope or fear, and change is the given keyword.

In recent history, “Change You Can Believe In” resulted in success. “Change for the Better” and “Change for the Future” are keywords that may resound with today’s voters. But in 2016, a candidate who adopts a similar slogan will be called upon to explain how that goal will be accomplished, and ultimately, that is the core of politics.

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